Few and Many, Spirit and Morality (3/18/15)

I am approaching the point where Christianity, insofar as it is single-mindedly preoccupied with sin and virtue, has little to contribute to my spiritual awakening. This enthrallment with moral struggle—so pervasive, both in Judaism and in Christianity—is predicated, I suspect, upon a belief in the ultimate reality of the separate self (or, if you like, the immortal soul). This contest, or agon, between good and evil—whether this contest is fought within the “sinner’s” breast or in some aggressive crusade against an external, ‘evil’ enemy—is one of the principal motors (along with hunger, sex/reproduction, and the need for security) that drive and orient human beings on the stage of dramatic conflict that recorded human history chiefly consists in. Gradually reducing the ‘electricity’ that powers this crucial motor within myself has enabled me to see just how foolish, tormented, blinkered and hateful so much of motorized human activity really is. It is pretty simple: so long as a majority of persons is convinced that the principal aim of both individual and collective action is the triumph of moral virtue over sin, of religious orthodoxy over irreligion (perverted religion) or one cherished ideology (say, free market Capitalism) over a despised one (e.g., Communism or Socialism), humanity will continue to be locked in a self-destructive war with itself—both inside and out.

Of course, I am not advocating the suspension or jettisoning of all ethical principles and means of tempering our aggressive impulses, our lusts, and appetites, and other patently dangerous drives and inclinations. I am not endorsing anarchic indulgence of our wild and unruly instincts—whereby we would be leaping from the proverbial frying pan into the fire. I may even be ready to admit that this traditional scheme of hellish punishments and heavenly rewards—precisely because it demonstrates proven power to keep large segments of the beclouded multitude sufficiently tamed so as not to ‘act up’ any more than is already the case—should by all means be left intact and regularly reinforced where the generality is concerned. Children require supervision. Boundaries and rules need to be set and real penalties must be imposed when those rules are broken—when those boundaries are prematurely exceeded or ignored.

May I be justly accused, here, of holding a double standard—one that applies to the blinkered ‘mass man,’ who is likened to a child, and another one that applies to the few, who are implicitly linked with mature adulthood? Perhaps. May I also be justly accused of suggesting that these ‘mature’ specimens have earned for themselves a perspective on things that is ‘beyond (conventional) good and evil’? Perhaps, but only if what is entailed in earning that perspective is thoroughly understood and accepted, and such an understanding appears to be relatively rare.

At a certain stage in our spiritual maturation, unreflective or dogmatic attachment to the old, deeply-ingrained moral law becomes a serious encumbrance to our inner freedom. Like a weighty millstone around our neck, it continues to impose duties and obligations that we have already begun to perceive in a subtler light—but which we are not quite clear and strong enough to slough off.

It is at this crucial stage of our spiritual ripening that we are in a position, perhaps for the first time, to understand the relative, self-canceling, nature of the various pairs of ‘reified’ or metaphysical opposites. A truth—or insight—that is deeper and even more fundamental than the realization about the futile, un-winnable war between good and evil, or light and darkness, begins to take hold of the spiritual initiate’s consciousness. What he glimpses is that all dogmatic or metaphysical dualities are both illusory and the matrix out of which most other illusions are born. When this profound insight is first registered, of course, its implications cannot at once be grasped. They are merely hinted at. But the main insight—namely, that there are no ‘breaks’, ‘splits,’ or ‘gaps’ in nature or the psyche, and that all elements, levels, and states are interconnected—is a watershed realization for the ‘initiate.’

But for awhile, the initiate is of ‘two minds.’ Because this fateful glimpse into the deeper and subtler reality behind the veil of ordinary consciousness is so compelling in its veracity and its authority, the initiate’s estimation of the essential trustworthiness of ordinary, unreflective consciousness (and discourse) sinks to an unprecedented low. Suddenly, the world of everyday experience, the normal round of activities, the value and substance of many of his relationships—all of these suddenly pale in significance, in vividness, and in value when compared to the blessed-accursed glimpse he got of the mystery always lurking behind the veil that was briefly lifted. On the one hand, he feels blessed to have received such a momentous, consciousness-altering revelation. On the other hand, because this experience has so profoundly disturbed his former, familiar bearings and distanced him from the norms and priorities embraced by the general community, he cannot help but feel cursed, as well—at least, initially.

He may with some justice be said to have a foot in two practically incommensurable worlds—in neither of which he can claim to possess full citizenship. He no longer feels fully and confidently invested in the discredited, ‘unmasked’ shadow world where virtually everyone else lives and pursues his personal interests and inclinations. Nor does he yet feel stably and solidly planted in the far more compelling, if elusive, world of psychological or ‘imaginal’ perception. For some time, our ambiguous/ambivalent demi-denizen of two not quite fully inhabited realms of experience must simply endure this unenviable stage of metamorphosis. Neither worm nor butterfly, our unfinished one is something ‘in between’ (metaxy)—a kind of ‘bridge’ between being and non-being. Try as he may, he cannot work up a sustained interest in the activities and preoccupations of those around him who are still firmly fixed at the worm stage. And, of course, this cuts both ways: if he finds them sluggish, ‘soft,’ and exasperatingly linear, the ‘worms’ find him irritating and threatening (like salt on a snail’s moist back). Moreover, this unfinished one has no stable and trustworthy form—but is ‘all over the place,’ like all things larval.

On the other hand, not until the transformation or maturation has carried through to completion will his fully-formed wings appear—the liberty-bestowing wings that will enable the ripened initiate to move freely in the infinite region beyond the self-spun walls of his silken cocoon. Thus, it makes good, natural sense for the psyche (which, in ancient Greek, also connoted ‘butterfly’) to remain quietly secluded within the womb of its solitude while the critical and delicate metamorphosis from creaturely crawler upon the earth to beautiful, winged voyager in the sunny air runs its destined course.

 

The Spiritual, Moral/Political, and Judicious/Pedagogical Use of Words (8/21/12)

How is it that I am able to justify placing the spiritual life—as I have slowly come to understand it—on a higher rung of importance than the life dedicated primarily to moral and political justice, as Hedges and Chomsky—who are admirable men—do? It is because I have learned that the practice of moral and political justice in my own life—the only life I have a measure of direct influence over—is overshadowed and subsumed by my practice of the spiritual, or contemplative life. What this means is that, so far as I can see, the best way I can contribute to moral and political justice in my social and political surroundings is to strive to maintain a relatively disinterested, poised state of spiritual centeredness. As long as I am centered and balanced in this way, I am not compelled by powerful anger, resentment, desire, fear, and other emotions that naturally prompt humans to go to war ‘for’ this and ‘against’ that—to take sides in some kind of struggle between an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’ There will, it seems, always be contending groups and embattled individual egos in the world of ordinary human affairs and the moment we take one side we enter into a potentially hostile dynamic with the other. The various pairs of opposites that appear to be composed of warring or antagonistic factions are essentially (and un-apparently or invisibly) gapless continua, not split dualisms. But in order to see—and to genuinely experience—this underlying unity beneath the apparent strife we must manage somehow to mentally transcend the dualistic or oppositional paradigm—as Arjuna does, under Krishna’s wise supervision, in the Bhagavad Gita. Of course, the simple Christian utterance which is so difficult to practice—namely, ‘Love your enemy’—is a kind of mantra, the intended purpose of which is to break the oppositional, ‘us versus them,’ mode of seeing and feeling. Alas, this is the normal mode of seeing and feeling among human beings. Consequently, the teachings of Christ and the Buddha are widely, though often privately, regarded by humans as ‘insanely’ unrealistic, and even dangerously deluded in the sort of world that we actually inhabit (one that is full of hypocritical Christians and lip-service Buddhists), while from the transcendental, centered standpoint, dogs—or even dogs and cats together in the same room—often provide a better example of how to get on in the world than most human animals can manage.

Since I am fully aware that I cannot change other persons’ minds and hearts simply by preaching to them or by apprising them of their blindness and their unacknowledged (or unconsciously projected) villainy, I am wary of moral crusades and political revolutions that aim to purge society and to right the wrongs of the unjust. Human beings simply don’t change inwardly (which is the only kind of change that matters) unless and until they are truly ready. This readiness depends on a number of factors—a capacity for honest reflection being perhaps the most important of these—but it cannot be forced or compelled from without. Unfortunately, another key ingredient to the getting of wisdom appears to be deep suffering—and no good-hearted person prays that such suffering will torment even those persons we don’t like or care for. And yet, we may have to accept the fact that their arrogant ignorance and selfishness will not likely be overcome by mere reason and reflection alone—but will need to be beaten out of them in the school of hard knocks.

It is for this reason that I have gradually come to regard preaching and sermonizing as a comparatively crude way of contributing to the social harmony, political justice, and moral goodness of our surroundings. I have found that when I am able to reflect deeply, temper my own passions, and refrain from ‘us versus them’ thinking, I am in the best position to ‘teach without using words,’ as the old Taoists used to say. And yet, because I feel very much at home with words, it’s not likely that I will ‘shut up’ anytime soon. Perhaps, instead of attempting to ‘teach without using words,’ I will just have to settle for ‘writing between the lines.’

Excavating Ourselves (3/30/12)

Where the deeper and more existentially important matters in our lives are concerned, much more is beyond our conscious reach and control than we are inclined to believe—particularly in the atomized, personal ego-driven, consumerist culture we live in today. I would go further and say that, for most of us, those matters of which we do possess some real understanding and control are comparatively trivial and insignificant when set beside the habit-reinforced, structural factors that operate (very much like digestion and our immune systems) well below the threshold of our consciousness. These are the ‘determining’ and predisposing factors that mysteriously shape, steer, and color our conscious thoughts and feelings—about the world, about ourselves, and about others—before we think, before we feel, before we choose or decide. We learn that we are invisibly and inescapably bound in unwitting servitude to such factors as soon as we dig down to a certain depth. And because these factors are for the most part unconscious, they operate behind our backs like invisible gases that intoxicate, enrage, depress, sexually excite, inspire, and panic us. They may be likened to invisible puppeteers that move us about without our knowledge or consent.

Some of these puppet strings were already in place before we were born—others were fastened to us later (following our ‘formative’ experiences with Mommy, Daddy, Father Hamilton, S.J., Uncle Sam, Ma Bell and her corporate kin, etc.)—but we cannot untie ourselves from them unless and until we become conscious of them as being somehow other than us. As long as we are oblivious to these strings and the powers that move them and us around, we will only be able to throw up our hands and say, each time they act up, ‘Well, that’s just me! I wish I were different, but that’s who I am.’ So long as we believe ourselves to be consubstantial with these unseen determining factors, we will never really be free of their power and authority over us. It is easy to see this in cases of alcohol or drug addiction—but these are comparatively crude and destructive forms of servitude. The forms that we are concerned with here are subtle and—aside from the fact that they operate beyond our conscious control—just as frequently benign, harmless, and even salutary as they are malignant, pathological, and disturbing.

Obviously, the most important first step we can take to liberate ourselves from these automatic, fate-deciding psychological complexes is to make them conscious. This means differentiating them from what I will call our essential self. As long as these complexes and patterns remain unconscious, they will remain undifferentiated from—or merged with—our core sense of personal identity. After we make headway differentiating our complexes, they become increasingly objectified. We learn about them—how they operate. We learn to recognize when we are most vulnerable to their domination, etc. But in order to proceed successfully with this sort of inner work, the psyche itself has to be understood in a radically new way. For many of us it comes as a surprise to learn that the psyche is every bit as real, enormous, complex, and ‘objective’ as the outer world and the vast universe are. We come to learn that we are in the psyche—just as we are in the universe. This is a very different perspective than the common (unenlightened) one, which locates the psyche ‘in’ us. Of course, the simple reason this actual arrangement is so hard for many Western persons to see is because our (individual and collective) attention is almost always directed outwards, in keeping with the deeply-rooted, one-sided prejudices of our materialistic, activity-obsessed, literalistic, anti-metaphorical, and unreflective culture. These prejudices must, one by one, be seen through and deconstructed before we can extricate our minds from their blinding and deforming influence. This is no small feat, of course, and considerable intellectual energy, discipline, and leisure will be required in order to make significant headway with this excavation work. We are ex-cavating ourselves (with an oblique reference here to Plato’s allegory of the cave) from the limited horizons of the prevalent modern Western worldview. Unless and until we truly begin to see this worldview (into which we were inserted at birth, just as we were dropped into our particular household, complete with our actual parents, socioeconomic prospects, religious affiliation, ethnic group, language group, etc.) as a historically conditioned, largely constructed and collective-habit-cemented, functional monstrosity, we are almost guaranteed to mistake it for ‘the truth’ or for ‘reality’—plain and simple—when in fact it is probably more accurate to describe it as a filter or veil standing in the way of more honest (and therefore messy) experience.

Ego and Spirit (10/3/12)

A state of unruffled, serene composure is what is left over after all the numerous, naturally-arising distractions of our attention have been gently but thoroughly rebuffed and brought to a stop. For the intellectual, who seems to thrive on the stimulation provided by fresh and provocative ideas, the deliberate cessation of all lines of thought feels almost like a betrayal of his calling. For the moral enthusiast, whose delicious sense of self-worth and personal importance hinges upon his unceasing efforts to ‘do the right thing’ for his fellows, the unplugging from all such thoughts and sentiments can feel like a gross dereliction of duty. For the man of action, whose very sense of identity is bound up with staying busily involved with his absorbing projects, such willed moments of stillness come up against every imaginable form of resistance. In short, numberless are the distractions that eclipse the serene stillness and contentment that are always just within the reach of the quieted mind.

If self-mastery consists largely in learning how to inhabit this ‘still point’ with greater ease and for longer stretches of time, then it depends to a great extent upon our learning how to not do, not think, and not be moved all over the mental chess board or billiard table by our habitual feelings and insistent passions. And yet, for most of us, these are precisely the factors that constitute our ‘humanity’ and our sense of personal identity. Little wonder, then, that they should put up such a fight as soon as our spiritual self (atman) begins to gently announce its presence. It is like the clash or collision between two diametrically opposed worlds, in a sense. The spirit is essentially free. It exists on its own, independently, in a liberated state. But the moment our absorption in that state of spiritual liberation is disturbed by the powerful distractions produced by (our consciousness of) the body, the emotions, and the intellect (i.e., the ego), we cannot help but see and interpret that ego (and its concerns) in completely new way. We begin to understand freedom in a radically new sense. Put simply, we learn that freedom, which is innate to the spirit, is essentially freedom from, while, from the ego’s perspective, it is understood as freedom to. But freedom to do what?

Since the ego is driven by—one might go so far as to say founded upon—desire, fear, and the will to power, freedom is understood to mean the satisfaction of its desires, the continual enhancement and extension of its will to power, and the control (or outright annihilation) of all feared/despised objects. As long as we are identified with the ego, our notion of freedom will naturally conform to these egoic objectives. As soon as there is genuine contact with the spirit, the ego necessarily experiences a profound crisis. Why is this?

From the spirit’s perspective, the ego (as a reified psychological complex) is prone to enslavement by its natural drives, habits, fears, ambitions, and cravings. The more intensely and vehemently the ego pursues its natural (literal, concretistic) aims, the deeper it digs itself into the hole of its imprisonment, which corresponds with its implicit belief in its primacy, its independent reality, and its ‘given’—as opposed to ‘constructed’—nature. Contact with the spirit does two things, then, for the ego. First of all, it presents a vividly experienceable form of freedom and contentment that is utterly new and utterly different from the appetitive forms of freedom and pleasure that it is accustomed to pursuing. Secondly, it subtly—one might almost say insidiously—poisons the ego’s naïve or innocent trust in its goals, its modus operandi, and its general assumptions about itself and the world. The ego gets a glimpse—an unforgettable taste—of the spirit’s radically different form of freedom. This spiritual freedom, as suggested earlier, is not only far more substantial and profound than the fleeting, unstable pleasures and successes won upon the human ego battlefield, but they expose the concretistic, compulsive, and consuming character of the ego’s fundamental tendencies—its dark and smoky engines, if you like.

‘Even if I win, I lose’: thus muses the newly enlightened (and therefore thoroughly humbled) ego. ‘I could be emperor of this world, and I would never really be secure, or contented, or certain of anything—except, that is, certain of my folly for choosing dominion over the whole wide world above humble abidance in the spirit that I have been mysteriously visited by.’

Death in Life (4/7/12)

From time to time I remember, all over again, what a prodigious misfit I am within my cultural world—if not within this species! My daimon must either be an avatar or an atavism—or more than a little of both. If I ask myself what is at the bottom of my misfitness, the first thing that leaps to mind is the recognition that the lights I strive to live by are noticeably different from—and often diametrically opposed to—the aims and purposes that almost everyone I know lives by. Sometimes I seem to be trying to undo what virtually everyone in this culture was brought up to do, to seek, to shoot for. I, too, was brought up much the same way, but obviously at some basic level it never took. My notion of freedom increasingly assumes the character of ‘wu-wei’ or ‘not-doing.’ This is certainly not born of laziness—since ‘not doing’ seems, paradoxically, to require a good deal more initiative and concentration than conforming to the generally prescribed norms and hitching my wagon to popularly endorsed pursuits, political figures, opinions, behaviors, etc.

‘Doing’ in the collectively sanctioned and endorsed ways often seems to entail ‘going with the flow,’ something I have instinctively resisted—in large part because this indeed strikes me as the lazy way of going about one’s business, even if such doing frequently involves burning off a lot of calories. It often amounts to a lot of huffing and puffing simply to push oneself further and faster in the very direction in which everything is already heading. (When and if the ‘giant pendulum’ reverses—as I am certain that it always eventually does—those who are first will be last, and those who are last will be first—in the new direction. But staying close to the center is the most prudent and moderate course to follow, I reckon.)

How do I feel about this general situation that I have sketched here? I can honestly say that I am neither happy and content nor ashamed and dejected—but, depending on the day and the circumstances, somewhere in between. The ‘human’ in me understandably longs for the soothing and affirming embrace of my fellow mortals—but the daimon subtly discourages my taking any more than a modest share of such comfort, since a few companions of quality outweigh a battalion of fragments. To continue to remain true and faithful in my service, the daimon limits me to only the most carefully chosen and mutually respectful affiliations with a handful of other like-minded comrades. Thus, soul-making is a kind of death in life, which, as it turns out, is infinitely preferable to the empty life of a dead soul.

Clutching my Crutches (2/7/12)

On my more honest days, I am willing to acknowledge how much I rely on being able to make reasonably coherent statements (of a philosophical-psychological character) in order to prop up my general sense of spiritual well-being. In admitting this I am not quite conceding that my philosophical claims make no positive contribution to other inquiring minds or that their function as supports for my spiritual well-being is their only salutary function. In blunter words, I am not ready to grant that these philosophical observations and speculations are merely consoling fictions I tell myself (and anyone else who will listen) simply in order to shield myself from the corrosive waves of ‘nihilism,’ ‘cynicism,’ and ‘pessimism’ that incessantly lap against my vulnerable shoreline.

It seems to be true, then, that my daily invocation of a select set of theoretical/spiritual principles plays a crucially decisive role in fighting back these waves and occasionally devastating tsunamis. Apparently, I see myself as a man besieged and that if I did nothing I would soon be engulfed by the muddy flood threatening to over-run the sandbag wall of philosophical journal entries behind which I have encamped for safety’s sake…for purity’s sake…for ‘God’s sake.’ For let me be candid: at some level I seem to believe that I am going about ‘my Father’s business’ in sheltering my soul from the mud and the slime that beset me on all sides—don’t I? How might this (now not so secret) conception of myself as a ‘servant of God’s plan’ feed into my pride and egotism? How might it widen and deepen the imagined gulf between me and ‘the others,’ those ‘ignorant and lost sheep’ who have swallowed down so much dirty, slimy floodwater that they are on the verge of drowning? What can I possibly do to assist such beleaguered souls? Don’t I have my hands full simply trying to maintain a hygienic distance from them? For in all honesty—aren’t they the flood? Or at least the contaminated carriers of all those malignant, microbial pathogens that I work so hard to keep away from my person—out of my breathing space? Is misanthropy simply one more occupational hazard faced by anyone working for God, Inc.? (Ltd.?)

Perhaps my job description needs to be revised—expanded and made more complex—in order that I may work more effectively and more humanely at what I am called to do. If the good doctor of bodies hates the disease but not the patient, the good doctor of souls will hate the sin but not the sinner. The medical doctor confronts his string of ailing patients face to face—he does not flee from them, even if he avoids taking unnecessary risks (by kissing and sharing needles with them). Likewise, the spiritual physician—recognizing the real distinction between ‘corrupted’ and sound elements within himself—assists those whom he can with their own gradual recovery. He does not shun them, even when he suspects that they are beyond hope for recovery. For these, in particular, he summons from within himself the deepest compassion. Such ‘incurables,’ however, are perhaps not as common as we might suspect.

On Renunciation (10/4/12)

Bliss is not so much the fulfillment of bodily desires and emotional yearnings as it is freedom from enthrallment to these desires and yearnings, which can always be relied upon to disturb or unseat us from our true bliss. This observation is not confined solely to desire, but applies to all of the affects and perturbations of the soul. Bliss and serene contentedness, or poised neutrality, are one and the same. When you meditate, observe how your desires hijack your attention and direct it away from the center. Even the craving for centeredness, when it becomes urgently pressing, stands as a kind of impediment to perfect peace of mind. Our desires spontaneously project imagined objects or ends (desiderata), while genuine bliss seems to consist in the absence of all such objects of desire—being always sufficient unto itself. The inversion of desire, of course, is fear—and fear is every bit as effective a disrupter of our spiritual poise as desire is.

Some persons do not respond trustingly and receptively to the neutral bliss of perfect meditation, or centeredness. It is not that these persons find it unpalatable, an absurd suggestion, since bliss is intrinsically pleasant; rather, they are rattled by the fact that, once experienced, it throws all of their established, long believed-in, human-all-too-human goals, pleasures, and assumptions into a peculiar light. Genuine spiritual illumination necessarily exposes all merely human aims, pleasures, and dreams for the shadows and poor substitutes (for genuine spiritual contentment) that, alas, they are.[1]

I suspect that most, if not all, persons, at one time or another, enjoy spontaneously occurring moments of this unadulterated spiritual bliss. These moments probably occur more frequently during childhood—before the young person has become fully enmeshed in his/her role(s) and functions within society. Once mundane reality and everyday demands have thoroughly conscripted our souls and we become the more or less helpless servants of our desires, duties, talents, fears, and so forth, it becomes far more difficult for us to relax our way into the stillpoint. But if perchance such a moment of grace lifts such a slave out of his bondage, soon after the joy of liberation is savored ‘the world’ and one’s established place in that world reasserts its dominating power over us and the moment of joy is drowned out by the noise and bustle of ‘real life.’

Every once in awhile, here and there among the children of men, someone will say to himself after such a moment of euphoric freedom: ‘This is the true reality! The scripted and plotted life that I lead as an ego among other egos is the inauthentic, artificial realm of experience!’ In deciding to switch his allegiance from the world of social duties and limited personal attachments to the inner path of spiritual liberation, he initially invites all sorts of trouble into his life. The transformation he has inwardly committed himself to will not happen quickly or painlessly. It is perhaps the hardest thing in the world to overcome one’s attachments to the world, for what this ultimately comes down to is overcoming our deeply-rooted desire for incarnation in the world of ordinary human experience.   Before we can truly and enduringly abide in the spirit, we must die to the world. Each lives the other’s death, in a very real sense.

For a long time, therefore, the committed seeker after spiritual liberation will be mired in the agonizing struggle to master those recurring desires and stubborn attachments that define his personal ego consciousness and the general trajectory of his life. It may be the desire for fame as a great teacher or saint that is the secret engine driving his ego, or it may be a sentimental, sticky attachment to his mate or his child. Persons who are profoundly attached—or addicted—to sensual pleasures, to personal power and wealth, or to intoxicants of some kind or another are not likely candidates for enduring spiritual liberation, since these compulsions are exceedingly difficult to break free from, not to speak of the more vicious and brutish inclinations which have captured the helpless souls of the criminally depraved and the possessed.

The protracted and arduous struggles of the committed seeker after release (from the compulsive tendencies and the pet illusions of his own ego) will be rewarded from time to time with reassuring episodes of great inner peace and an extraordinary sense of groundedness in his true and authentic essence. These periodically encountered oases of spiritual refreshment and encouragement have certainly restored my own strength and determination as I have trudged through the desert of the world as experienced and known only by the ego. Only after we have lost our initial innocence and ignorance (about the actual hollowness and essential fraudulence of the ‘constructed’ world and its offerings) are we in a position to systematically deconstruct that world—to see through it and to gradually extricate ourselves from its seductive snares. Without these periodic infusions of spiritual insight and encouragement, we would possess no counterweight against the tantalizing pull of the world—or, contrariwise, against the nihilism of despair, which constitutes every bit as strong an obstacle to our inner freedom.

Who, then, is committed? It is not—it cannot rightfully be—the ego, since it is the ego’s perspective that is being seen through, relativized, and, ultimately transcended. It is the spirit-spark itself—what the Hindus call atman—that is behind the whole process, from start to finish. We find an analogy in Gnostic mythology: Sophia, believing that she was pursuing the light of the hidden God, was actually plunging into matter, where the divine light was being reflected. Similarly, the atman, or spirit, may be said to have become identified with its shadow, or reflection, in the individual human ego—its carnal twin. The spirit is awakening from that slumberous descent—returning to its true home—leaving behind the lesser lights for the ‘invisible sun.’

[1] When we experience exceptional joy or happiness while engaged in some activity or in beholding some beautiful scene, the activity or the scene may best be thought of as opening a portal or window into the joy or bliss that is always native to our innermost being—if we could but see this. What happens though, is that we typically reify the happiness and conflate it with the activity or with the scene which, properly speaking, are merely occasions for the bliss that is always within reach, regardless of the circumstances.

Cries and Whispers (4/24/18)

Can the general distress in which humanity finds itself somehow be bound up with the fact that we have forgotten that we are—each and every one of us—servants by nature, and not lords and ladies, of this earth and the spiritual realm? A prodigious derailment began a few centuries ago. Only a few living today have any memory or knowledge of what it was like when humanity was still precariously on track. Those of us living today were born into the violent midst of the ongoing disaster—only the smaller part of which occurs on the plane of historical-material events, while the larger part is occurring in our confused, noisy, disoriented minds and hearts.

Our recent ancestors were lured off course by promises not unlike those whispered in the mythical Garden of Eden: that they would become like Gods. This seduction was presented in such cunningly crafted terms that our credulous forebears saw it practically as a moral imperative to throw off the yoke of their servant status and take charge of our species’ destiny. Phaeton would drive his father’s chariot of the sun. Nothing else would do.

Never reluctant to teach humanity a stern lesson, the Gods and other invisible powers stepped back and unplugged from our forebears into the dark, distant silence, where they remain. We would be given an opportunity to demonstrate our ability to manage planetary affairs without the light, the guidance, and support of the invisible powers that were previously served. Thus, the great derailment—called anthropocentrism or ‘Enlightenment humanism’—began.

We have forgotten that we are an ‘in-between’ sort of creature—and not culminations or final goals. It will only be by remembering and recovering our intermediate ‘place’ in the much larger scheme of things that we eventually get back on track and online as servants of that larger scheme. Some of us, scattered here and there around the wobbly globe, have gratefully and obediently returned to a life of service to the whole, rather than living derailed lives of mass consumption and usurped, illegitimate lordship. The invisible powers take note of us only because of our readiness and devotedness to ‘picking up the pieces’ flung and strewn about by the ongoing derailment.

We are quiet and modest workers and only those who quiet down and simmer down can hear the ‘invisibles’ whispering a new-old tune through us.

Radical Equanimity (11/9/11)

The world’s best kept secret: In the human realm, when you win, you lose. And when you fail, you succeed. The “human, all too human” won’t let go of you until you begin to let go of it—and this can only be accomplished from a standpoint that is not, itself, confined to the merely human: an essential paradox concerning spiritual liberation. As long as I believe I can attain freedom within the confines of exclusively human horizons, I will continue to trip over my own feet. What we commonly recognize as ordinary human aspirations, values, desires, and fears constitute the very shackles and hoods which bind and blind us. And yet, as long as we are identified with our ordinary human perspective, it is impossible to acquire any more than momentary, sporadic glimpses of the serenity, wisdom, and freedom that are inherent in the perspective that lies just beyond the horizons of the human, all-too-human. What I am suggesting is that we first must die to the demands and enticements of the human realm before we can be stably initiated into the level awaiting us beyond. Such renunciation cannot be compelled, of course. Moreover, it does not come about through a scornful or bitter rejection—for this is merely a negative bond, an inversion of the attachment of desire, but every bit as sticky, stubborn, and difficult to undo. Release from these confining horizons is only attained with the serene neutrality that sees through and beyond the warring pairs of opposites—chief of which, according to Buddhism, are desire and fear. These, in a real sense, constitute human experience and define its horizons.

So, if we are encouraged to loosen and to extricate our souls from all those positively binding attachments to persons, places, and things—if, that is, we are to achieve the neutrality that is the key to our liberation, we must also let go of any desire to take punitive revenge upon life (for disappointing our hopes, desires, and expectations) or anyone in that life. Both the positive and the negative inducements (or seductions) must be ‘seen through’ and ‘neutralized.’ This is true poise and equanimity—rarely encountered among our kind.

Additional Thoughts about Ramana Maharshi and C.G. Jung (6/7/11)

Re-reading Ramana Maharshi’s little book[1]—which I have done periodically since I first discovered the book at an ‘esoteric’ bookstore in 1977—always presents baffling questions to me. In a number of ways it is deeper and far more radical in its claims than Jung’s, Plato’s, Hillman’s, or even Nietzsche’s. Perhaps the point of greatest divergence from Jung and Nietzsche is RM’s firm and uncompromising position towards the ego, or ‘I’ consciousness. For him, the ego is an utter illusion and it is the ‘one big thing’ obstructing the path to Self-realization, happiness, and bliss. Jung and Nietzsche, while they are not at all naïve about humans’ capacity for self-deception (and the crucial role played by the ego in this business), do not preach or recommend the annihilation of the ego by means of radical self-enquiry, as Ramana does.

For Jung, without ego-consciousness there cannot be true moral conscience and responsibility—and to dispense with these is to become sub- rather than super-human. The ego provides a crucial two-fronted defense against outer world seductions and threats, on the one side, and potentially overwhelming unconscious inner drives and impulses, on the other. But it is not merely a defensive factor; it is also integrative and assimilative on those same two, inner and outer, fronts. Jung does not make a simple equation between the inner world of the unconscious and ‘God’ (or the ‘Self’)—as such—as Ramana appears to do. Or, if Jung does recognize parallels between the unconscious (as it is perceived via its phenomenology) and a God-image, it comes much closer to the God-image of the morally ambiguous Old Testament Yahweh than to the All-good and All-forgiving God-image of the New Testament. At any event, the idea of annihilating the ego—if such a feat is even possible—and identifying with a God-image, any God-image, constitutes a kind of madness for Jung—or, at the very least, a dangerous inflation which invites a compensatory deflation by the unconscious.

To be fair to Ramana Maharshi, ‘morality’ as it is conventionally understood (or mis-understood) is irrelevant to the Self (or atman), as the very notion of a ‘doer’ or agent is obliterated in ‘final liberation.’ There is a kind of ‘Catch-22’ or inescapable paradox to this divergence between Jung and Ramana Maharshi, which may stem from their fundamentally incommensurable vantage points. Since Jung is viewing these questions from the standpoint of the ego, or ‘I’-consciousness, and Ramana has presumably transcended ego-consciousness and speaks from the standpoint of atman, it follows that their views must diverge. (Moreover, since I am still ordinarily bound within ‘illusory’ ego-consciousness, it stands to reason that I am likely, under normal conditions, to find Jung’s stated position more persuasive—since it proceeds from a psychological standpoint with which I am all too familiar.) Ego-consciousness is, by its very nature, discriminating consciousness—as Jung repeatedly informs us—while the ecstatic, mystical awareness of the sage is not. What we have here is something vaguely analogous to the difference between the Apollonian and the Dionysian modes of consciousness, as famously described by Nietzsche in his Birth of Tragedy.

The liberation that Ramana Maharshi speaks of is liberation from the pairs of opposites—those very syzygies and polarities from which ego consciousness is generated. Jung’s chief concern, in the more advanced stages of the individuation process, is the reconciliation or balancing of the various pairs of opposites. This problem of the opposites is the focus of his attention in perhaps his magnum opus, The Mysterium Coniunctionis. What are being conjoined are the pairs of opposites. But, paradoxically, the idea of the ego reconciling the opposites from which it is generated is akin to Baron Münchausen lifting himself out of the quicksand by pulling his own ponytail. The ego does not actively orchestrate the coniunctio; it endures it. One necessarily undergoes a shift in one’s psychic center of gravity during this liberating ordeal, this torturous (from the ego-standpoint) crucifixion of the illusory self as the true Self incarnates from the background. The stronger and deeper the attachment to the world of literal forms and to the ego’s accomplishments and holdings, the more painful the process of renunciation, those ‘purgatorial’ fires that burn away the ligaments binding the jiva to the realm of maya.

****

Another way of presenting RM’s ‘Who am I?’ enquiry (the method of dissolving the ego for which he is best known) is to explore the various meanings and interpretations of the phrase ‘seeing through the ego, or I-consciousness.’ The goal here is to gradually and systematically bring about a stable identification with the seer—and to break the identification with the seen or with the modes or means of seeing. RM repeatedly maintains that the Self or Seer is our true nature and happiness is the natural condition of the Self. In the myriad instances of particular individual beings who are ignorant of the one Self behind all the world and its creatures, the Self has become lost, or absorbed, in its projections. As each individual, one by one, breaks the spell of enchantment (of unconscious projection of Self into forms, names, objects), a splinter or spark of the Self is returned to its timeless, absolute source. The individual ego—as a conduit or fiber-optic channel for the light of the Self—has rendered its highest possible service at that point and it ceases henceforth to claim any separate identity for itself. Its very ‘existence’ is seen to have been illusory and insubstantial.

We might think of ego-consciousness as an illusion produced by the confluence of various real elements which are then viewed from a particular vantage point. It is this crucial factor—the particular vantage point of the perceiving subject—that produces the illusion of separate ego-consciousness. An analogy can be found in the rainbow and in the desert mirage, both of which depend for their appearance, upon a combination of real factors and a particular vantage point of the perceiver. In the case of the mirage—hot air, sand, and sunlight, coupled with the angle of vision of the perceiver, create the optical illusion of water, which happens to be a most alluring appearance to anyone in a desert. Likewise, the rainbow—another image of favorable import to the beholder—depends for its appearance upon water droplets in the air and the sun behind the perceiving subject, whose position vis-à-vis these real factors is crucial for the production of the appearance of the rainbow—which is not ‘actually’ there. It exists, like the desert mirage, in the mind of the perceiving subject. According to RM, the human ego, while no more real, at bottom, than a mirage or a rainbow, feels as real to most of us as the rainbow and mirage appear to be real. Those who are ignorant of the actual and perceptual factors at work behind mirages and rainbows are apt to chase and pursue these elusive (and illusive) appearances, while those who know better will remain still and not run after them. They will see ‘non-things’ as mere phenomena or appearances—and not as substantial or real.

Jung may be said to greatly expand the realm of appearances—which can be taken for efficacious or substantive realities—by including psychic contents, fantasy material, and so forth, within the category of empirical phenomena. Does he render an unequivocally positive service to spiritual enlightenment and liberation by making this move—the ‘discovery’ of the objective ‘reality’ of the psyche? From RM’s position, this is a double-edged sword since, for him, ‘Gods’ and all the psychic images that are continually being generated by the psyche are just as unreal and unworthy of our deferential attachment and belief as our bodies are.

In Hillman’s writings the ego ‘feels’ very different—and a good deal ‘lighter’ or more ‘relativized’—than it does in Jung where, despite his repeated efforts to de-reify and de-hypostatize the concept, it still comes off bearing more bulk and heft than Hillman’s, which is explicitly presented as a fiction…a perspective, even. Nietzsche’s concept of the ego, on the other hand, turns out to be just about everything under the sun; a ghost, a kind of membrane or provisional platform between the will-to-power and the world; a mere assemblage of habits (of thought and feeling); an internalized and reified ‘story,’ etc.

In seeing through the ego—an individual ego—into its murky but discernible archetypal background, Hillman has developed an ‘imaginal’ method of relativizing the ego in an impressive manner. By finessing and sussing out the underlying archetypal image or drama that is being played out (usually without one’s conscious awareness of these secretly guiding motifs), Hillman implicitly articulates and psychologically instantiates various topoi out of which the ego—any ego—emerges like a plant out of its soil.

*****

After watching the 73 minute documentary about Ramana Maharshi’s life and teachings (on Google video), I am moved to ponder how much wider the reach of the sage’s healing wisdom and light might have been if he had bothered to take the ‘network of interconnected caverns’ (my metaphor for the modern global cultural situation —borrowed from Plato and updated) more to heart. Imagine the bridges and corridors he could have constructed and opened up if he had been able to direct the divine light of the Self into that network of dark caverns. Of course, in order to do that he would have had to first acquaint himself with the furnishings, structural features, and points of connection between these caves—along with their respective esoteric and exoteric teachings. This is what the ‘heroic’ Jung attempted, at the very least, along with other notable thinkers like Joseph Campbell, Huston Smith, and Mircea Eliade, to name only a few.

At the tender age of sixteen, RM leapt over and beyond the dogmatic bounds of culture—relegating most written and traditional doctrines to the potentially obstructive realm of mayavic illusion. In saying these things, I do not wish to disparage his actual accomplishment, which is undeniably stupendous and indisputably authentic. But there is much, much more to be done if the billions of suffering and confused prisoners huddled and pressed into these culture-caves are to gain a greater measure of inner freedom. This is the obverse side of mysticism—the less attractive side: its characteristic muteness and its sweeping, categorical dismissal of those oppressive or deranged terms and conditions 99.999% of us actually wake up to every day. Perhaps when RM’s ego-personality underwent its dissolution in that moment, early in his extraordinary life, when he became absorbed in Atman, his intellect—while as focused and as potent as a laser beam—was not as well-stocked with learning, literary and cultural knowledge as it would have needed to be in order to produce this very different sort of teacher—and very different sort of path. Do we not see a somewhat similar example in Western culture in the contrast between Jesus and Socrates/Plato?

These two paths—that of the Enlightened Heart and that of the Enlightened Mind—sometimes appear to converge and even to be one and the same. And then, from a slight adjustment of one’s perspective, they appear to be coming at the same questions and problems from radically different directions. But I suspect one must have a capacity for following both of these very different paths in order to see where they converge and where they diverge. Although I show a stronger propensity for the dispassionate and rather cold path of mental illumination, I have a powerful sense for the path of the awakened heart. As we approach the goal of our journey—on either path—the fundamental insights and basic virtues of the ‘other’ path come within our reach, I believe. Seeing and understanding this might prove to be very useful in arbitrating the frequent misunderstandings and tensions that occur between impassioned followers of these two paths that lead to the same goal: abidance in the Self.

[1] The Spiritual Teachings of Ramana Maharshi; Shambhala Publications; 1972